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Michael Murphy: Derry back from the brink and will believe they can beat Kerry

Mayo needed to ask the big questions from the start and didn’t. You can be sure Kerry won’t make the same mistake

Derry recovered from a bad run of form to beat Mayo and earn a date with Kerry. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Win or bust. Castlebar on Saturday was a gripping match with lots of excitement but lacking a bit in quality. Derry won’t mind, having somehow turned around what was shaping up to be a massively disappointing season.

Yet there they are, getting ready to come to Croke Park for an All-Ireland quarter-final and after the last 12 months they won’t be afraid of Kerry.

Conor McCloskey spoke afterwards about how their defence was back. That combined with Mayo’s lack of attacking nous or guile kept them in it despite the huffing and puffing in their own attack.

Their team cohesion might not have been as evident over the course of the 70 minutes but they had individuals who stepped up. There has been a lot said about Gareth McKinless in recent weeks but he was relentless on Saturday, even if not everything went his way.

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It felt to me as if it was personal. The team’s collapse in recent weeks was one thing and Mickey Harte’s position another but for players, who had been questioned as individuals, this was the backlash.

Brendan Rogers was another who set out to draw the line.

At Derry team meetings all week, they would have questioned themselves in the context of this being do or die. They would have known that their individual seasons were on the line.

As a result, the last thing they would have wanted was to be challenged immediately from minute one – asked questions to which the answers might have been: maybe this year is over; maybe we just can’t get to the necessary level; maybe we don’t have the fitness; maybe the Glen players shouldn’t have come back so quickly.

It was so unlike Mayo to give them a pass for the first 20 minutes instead of asking all those uncomfortable questions. I’m convinced the rewards were there for a different approach.

I can’t get away from the narrative that Mayo allowed brittle opponents to play themselves into the game and develop momentum. I know they have tried to introduce this more patient style and veer away from the mood swings and drama but it looked cumbersome.

Derry’s goalkeeper Odhrán Lynch saves a goal effort from Matthew Ruane of Mayo. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Mayo were at their most dangerous when they didn’t have the ball and set about ripping possession from Derry in the middle third and launching quick attacks. They struggled to get scores any other way.

There is, in fairness to them, the possibility that less than a week after taking Dublin to the brink, they simply lacked the energy to implement their obvious game plan.

Whatever the reason, they simply didn’t exert the defensive pressure they’re well capable of. Lachlan Murray skated around them for three early scores.

I’m not losing sight of the fact that ultimately this all came down to a tale of two, fisted point attempts. Sam Callinan’s went wide and Chrissy McKaigue’s went over. If Callinan scores or even turns back and recycles, there’s a different outcome being reviewed but Derry got a restart and a last chance.

Ryan O’Donoghue did bring a level of aggression to that last kick-out. He initially fouled a Derry defender after the possession got away, but from then on there literally wasn’t a hand laid on anyone for the rest of that move. After Conor Glass hit the post, the ball squirted out to McKinless, who played a one-two with Rogers and then to McKaigue and over the bar.

That was the game. Manage that phase better and there’s no extra-time, no penalties. Very frustrating for Mayo, as the same thing happened on the final kick-out the previous week against Dublin.

Another frustration for them is how they retrieved the situation through a third-quarter blitz. Their improved defensive energy actually revived their attacking game as well and caused some consternation in the set Derry defence.

Mayo tend to play like battering rams, running in straight lines, but when you’re looking to pick a defensive lock or for a precise pass played in over the blanket to an inside man, they just lack that creativity or guile.

Jordan Flynn had a powerful game in the air and kicked two points but they came from brute-force running lines, which will break Derry down sometimes but you need to ask more intricate questions of a set defence. You need quicker, more incisive passes.

This weekend, Kerry will ask those questions.

Derry’s Conor Doherty celebrates scoring the winning penalty against Mayo. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

I am in a sense pleased for Derry because we had seen enough to know there was better in them despite the crisis of their match performances since winning the league.

This wasn’t a universal switch being turned on either, because Glass and Shane McGuigan worked hard without displaying the class we know they have.

I’m not sure that I subscribe to the view that Glass was flogged too quickly after winning the club All-Ireland with Glen or that the early involvement of the club’s players was a reason behind their poor form.

As a former captain, it strikes me that having the captaincy played more of a role. When things are going well or not going well, it’s the leader who takes the brunt of talking, either as spokesperson for the team or the public face of Derry football. The pressure can get to a player, especially when he’s living in and around Derry and has a front-facing business. That’s challenging.

My view is that whereas they wouldn’t have wanted to draw Dublin after the league final win, they would have positively looked forward to facing Donegal or Kerry and that’s what they got.

Logically, they will see Kerry as too reliant on too few players for scores even though they have tried to alleviate the burden on the Cliffords and Seánie O’Shea. They will also believe that having rehabilitated their defensive system in Castlebar, taking on Kerry is an achievable next step.

That is always a vulnerability though in over-reliance. Darragh Canavan has had a fine season with Tyrone. There are times when he nearly puts my hip out, watching him twist and turn and he played well against Roscommon but this time, it wasn’t enough.

It will be Derry’s focus to cope with Kerry’s scorers just enough to stop them putting up a winning total. For me, the problem with Derry is that their attacking game is nowhere near what it was last year.

McGuigan was already a shoo-in for an All Star 12 months ago. On Saturday, he managed 0-4, two from play, in a season where his form has been one of the biggest casualties of the team’s decline. Ethan Doherty also scored two and Murray was the only forward on a hot streak.

Enough to take on Kerry with confidence? I’m not sure.